Natural comb: You want it, your bees want it too! What’s a good way to go about helping your bees to draw natural comb? Most beekeepers will almost automatically think of using a “top bar” hive or a Warre hive where instead of using frames with wax or plastic foundation as you do in a standard Langstroth hive, you only use a piece of wood that is usually cut with a wedge shape as a comb guide for the bees to completely draw out natural comb.
Well, I have great news for you beekeepers that want natural comb, but also want the convenience of using frames. It’s like having the best of both worlds, and I highly encourage new beekeepers to consider this method of management for your bees. If you think about it, there is almost a divided camp between the beekeepers that gravitate toward top bar hives versus the beekeepers that use the standard Langstroth hive because for many, the school of thought has always been that top bar hives are a more “natural” approach to beekeeping. The natural beekeepers avoid the plastic and wax foundation because of potential contaminants in the wax along with the off-gassing from the plastic foundation, and I find myself in the same camp. But I like using frames!
So, today I’m going to show you how you can use a Langstroth hive and be just as natural as any top bar hive beekeeper out there. Now before I continue, I want you to know that one of my very first hives was a top bar hive, and I still have one today. It was a little trickier getting a colony started, but it was a very robust hive once it was established, and it could produce honey like a champ. I was amazed at how much the honey weighed when I would lift one of the bars with comb. As much as I love my top bar hive, I found that there were some unique challenges to routine hive inspections.
For one thing, you have to hold the comb vertical at all times or else it will break off and fall on the ground setting the once tranquil hive into a frenzy not to mention sending the beekeeper into a panic. Secondly, sometimes the bees will fasten the comb to the side walls of a top bar hive. When you attempt to lift the bar, and it won’t budge because it’s securely welded with bee super glue on the sides, rest assured you are going to be there for a while. My only remedy for this was to ever so slowly slide my hive tool straight down the side carefully cutting through the comb that stuck to the sides. A routine hive inspection that might normally take between 3 – 5 minutes could easily take an hour or more depending on how many combs were stuck to the side walls. If you decide not to deal with this issue and hope it goes away, guess what? It will only become even more difficult the next time you try and get in the hive. I know beekeepers that started packages in top bar hives that cannot remove any of the bars and get in their hives because of this.
Granted, bees will weld the top down on any Langstroth hive given enough time but just keep in mind some of the maintenance issues that come up. I finally trained my bees to quit fastening the comb to the side walls, by repeatedly cutting very slowly through it each and every time I went in the hive. Eventually they took the hint and stopped.
But one day, I was wondering if the 2 types of hives, top bar vs Langstroth were really that different? After all, they are both made of wood. In fact when I started keeping bees, I started 3 packages of bees in 3 Langstroth hives, and one package in my top bar hive for a total of 4. I bought the lumber and used the same wood to make both styles of bee hives. So the wood was the same. I also used a foundation-less frame also called a “comb guide” that I found from Walter T. Kelly. You can order them at Kellybees.com I was determined to be as natural a beekeeper as I could be when I began, and I still am today. So not only were both hives made from the same wood, but both were set up to allow the bees to build their own comb. So they are essentially the same management style – natural comb.
One thing I noticed early on, was the ease of using frames. They are the hottest things since the discovery of electricity. I love being able to grab a frame of honey from a strong colony and usie it to boost a slightly weaker one. It literally takes a minute and you’re done! How about making a split? That’s also super fast and easy when you use frames too. So for me the frames are wonderful, but I do not care to use plastic and I am also aware of contamination in the wax foundation. So I use it sparingly like a tool encouraging my bees to draw their natural comb.
So if you are new to beekeeping and would like to have natural comb along with the ease using a standard Langstroth hive with frames, here are a few tips you can use to make your life easier in the process.
First never give your bees a hive with just comb guides. I did this once and they drew comb all over the place. Fortunately I caught it early enough and corrected it before they made it impossible to get in the hive.
Second,I then used some of my small cell wax foundation and took a pizza cutting wheel and cut it into 2 inch lengths and fastened them the same way I would a full sheet of foundation into the wedge top frames I had. These are called “starter strips”, and boy do they work great. It got my bees drawing comb straight and all the way down the frame.
Third, After your bees are drawing straight comb on your starter strips, it gets even easier to continue getting straight comb. You simply place a comb guide frame, or even a completely empty standard frame with the wedge turned sideways in between 2 fully drawn frames and they will draw it out nice and straight nearly every time. I learned this from Michael Bush.
Now you can simply continue using this method to greatly reduce or eliminate your need to buy wax foundation. So it saves you money and the bees will work just as fast without foundation – I know some might disagree, but try it for yourself. It’s the way bees would do it in the wild, and I try to encourage my bees to use as much of their natural instincts as possible when it comes to drawing comb.
So by giving this management technique a try you will (1) save money on wax foundation (2) encourage your bees to draw natural comb (3) avoid and reduce contact with any contaminated wax (4) produce your own clean organic wax for cosmetics or other beauty products (5) produce tasty natural comb honey and (6) enjoy the ease of using frames for quick hive inspections and splits or colony boosting. Plus you’ll still be a natural beekeeper even it you want to use a hive with frames!